Last week I called the principle of Markan priority a good place to start in NT criticism. That post probably sounded naïve to anyone not joined with one of the Christian inerrancy cults. Because the priority of Mark is a very well-established principle in mainstream Christian hermeneutics, and there would seem to be no need to belabor that. In fact, I realize now that my post was a kind of outreach, over the head of the mainstream, toward those who would gladly accept a key to NT criticism by which they may extract themselves from the fundamentalists without losing their religion.
There are two substantial reasons why I think the priority of Mark is a critical principle suitable for all Christians and compatible with a living faith in all four gospels.
First of all, it is a source theory which concerns a real text, itself canonical, rather than an imaginary one such as ‘Q’. The hypothesis of Q is not required as a condition for accepting the priority of Mark. These two elements of what is called the “Two-Source Theory” are completely independent from each other. And I find it easy to reject both Q and the Two-Source Theory, with adequate scholarly support for my rejection (although it is a minority view). Yet I can find no compelling grounds for the rejection of Mark’s historical priority among the four gospels.
Secondly, literary or historical priority is a principle which does not create or require a theological bias for Mark over against the other gospels. Placing Mark’s Gospel text first in time gives his material a special critical interest in relation to its effect upon the writers of the other three Gospels, but this value does not give Mark’s theological content higher status than the content of the other three.
Nor would the fact that the other writers used Mark as a source make their later gospels inferior to Mark, or further removed from ‘the original’ than Mark. If God lives, if the Spirit and the Son still dwell with mankind, there are no logical grounds for basing spiritual priority or authority on the fact of a document’s historical priority. That would be a fundamental category error.
Having said that, it remains a fact that the truth about any historical person, event, or idea often lies a little loosely to the narrative structure when encountered in its first recording; truth often benefits from exposure to a wider sample of experience and a longer period of reflection on the facts. Later writing therefore often represents riper fruit. But neither does this suggest that placing Mark first in time takes something away from the value of his unique contribution to the record about Jesus – A gospel’s truth is measured at the circumference of a circle whose center is not a text, but a living and speaking Jesus.
With these preliminaries out of the way, I want next to introduce a view of Mark in a context of gospel history which is not much celebrated by scholars, but will I think be of increasing interest to the next theology.